The Penrith Panthers have routed the North Queensland Cowboys, with James Maloney orchestrating a clinical performance that made the home side look lethargic by comparison.
The Cowboys' woes were compounded by injuries to Jordan McLean and Javid Bowen. It was a night that had few bright spots.
For the Panthers, it was extremely good news as it proved there is life after Nathan Cleary.
The western Sydney team lost their halfback, playmaker, and chief goalkicker last weekend with a knee ligament strain, but showed no sign of loss on Thursday night at 1300Smiles Stadium.
The Panthers were looking to turn their recent slow starts around, with strong defence forcing an early error before a penalty gifted them an easy two points.
The Cowboys tried to hit back with an attacking set courtesy of a penalty, but they couldn't take the points despite two more penalties and a repeat set.
They let the pressure off with an error, before a penalty piggy-backed the Panthers into a strong attacking position. Maloney then caught the outside defenders out as he sent Viliame Kikau over for the first try.
Match Highlights: Cowboys v Panthers - Round 4; 2018
The visitors scored their second in the 21st minute with a freakish sequence of play that saw the ball bounce off two sets of feet, only to find the hands of Maloney, who dived over.
The ball control and discipline of both sides went missing as half-time approached, and it came to a head for both sides when James Tamou was sin-binned due to the Panthers' repeated infringements.
Match: Cowboys v Panthers
Round 4 -
Venue: 1300SMILES Stadium
- Nine Network
- LIVE PASS
The Cowboys' kick for touch carried them into attacking position, and they finally executed with Kyle Feldt diving over the line close to the edge to score the Cowboys' first four-pointer in the 35th minute.
The Panthers had the last laugh going into half-time, with a Maloney kick drawing a penalty after Michael Morgan tackled a chaser without the ball.
The Cowboys started the second half down 16-4 but with a barn-storming run from Jason Taumalolo, which resulted in Issah Yeo having to be assisted from the field with concussion.
But then Coen Hess lost the ball 20 metres off the Cowboys line. The Cowboys gave away an offside penalty almost straight away and the Panthers took the two points to shoot out to 18-4.
They followed it up with a Maloney 40/20 kick and another penalty to move to 20-4.
The Cowboys managed to complete an error-free set in their own end and a penalty carried them up the field. Ben Hampton, perhaps the best for the Cowboys, found the Panthers out of position and sent Antonio Winterstein over in the corner in the 52nd minute. That levelled the amount of tries scored, if not the score.
Maloney starts and finishes freakish try
The comeback was killed off by the Panthers, as they muscled up in defence, and were rewarded with good field position. Maloney used it to put in a perfect kick for centre Waqa Blake to pluck from the air and score.
After some sustained pressure courtesy of a Panthers error, a cut-out pass from Morgan put Feldt over in the corner, and the successful kick put them 12 points behind 26-14 with eight minutes left.
The late surge wasn't nearly enough, as Maloney simply piloted a field goal over the black dot, sinking any hopes the Cowboys had of a late comeback, followed by a simple try to Moses Leota, as he pounced on an off-load to add insult to injury.